Assessing the Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic on Climate Change

In the few short months since a novel coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan China, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked destruction of a monumental scale on the world. As I write this article, nearly 2.5 million people are known to have been infected by the virus and an estimated 177,000 have died.

In response to the crisis, governments around the globe have enacted emergency lockdown and quarantine measures, restricting freedom of movement and economic activity in an effort to “flatten the curve” and prevent health infrastructure from being overwhelmed.


Because almost all forms of economic activity generate pollution, the pandemic-induced economic disruption has already caused massive drops in air pollution around the world. In March, early back-of-the-envelope calculations even suggested that reduced exposure to harmful pollutants like Nitrogen Dioxide exposure (NO2) would save thousands of lives this year, presenting a small silver lining to the crisis. However, new research has since shown that communities with high historic levels of pollution – at least in the USA – are the worst impacted by the virus, largely offsetting the life-cost effect.


Besides local air pollutants, economic activity is closely linked to greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions. Consequently, global lockdown measures are expected to reduce 2020’s total CO2 output dramatically with the latest predictions suggesting emissions will fall by about 2,200Mt, around 5.5% of 2019’s total.

We know that the coronavirus pandemic will have a major impact on this year’s CO2 emissions, but what will the long-term impact, if any, be on the climate crisis?


Why coronavirus is unlikely to halt climate change

Preventing the emission of 2,200Mt of CO2 would, unquestionably, have been a commendable achievement for humanity had it happened as the result of intentional climate action rather than as a side-effect of a health pandemic. In such an alternative scenario, the reductions could be sustained year on year if the policies were maintained, making a 2°C or even a catastrophe averting 1.5°C warming scenario a realistic prospect.


However, although 5.5% might sound like a lot, the truth is there is little reason to believe that the coronavirus pandemic will trigger the kind of sustained emissions decline required to make a meaningful difference in the fight against climate change. To keep global warming below a 1.5°C threshold, the IPCC says we need to reduce annual CO2 emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030.


Unfortunately, it is likely that 2020’s emission dip will become a small anomaly in the otherwise consistent growth of global CO2 emissions. Evidence for this can be found by looking to the 2008 financial crisis which triggered the last reduction in global CO2 output. In 2009, total carbon emissions fell by 1.4% but when the world economy got back on its feet in 2010, emissions ballooned by 5.9%, more than compensating for the cut.


The lesson here is obvious: if we aren’t careful, the stream of enormous stimulus packages designed to preserve and, after the pandemic has abated, reopen the world’s largest economies will also boost emissions so any positive benefit from this year’s fall is wiped away.


Coronavirus risks turning climate change into a secondary concern

What’s more, putting effective pressure on governments to take climate action is becoming more challenging under the lockdown conditions needed to address the coronavirus. In 2019, large scale protests put climate at the heart of the political debate in many countries. For the time being, such action is no longer feasible and the attention of the governments and their electorate is, understandably, occupied by the pandemic.


For multiple reasons, COVID-19 also places much-needed green energy production at risk. Reduced energy demand has caused oil producers to drop their prices to record lows, making it hard for renewable sources to compete. Simultaneously, green infrastructure projects are being threatened by reduced private sector investment and the diversion of public resources which governments are using to stop businesses from going bankrupt.


But, done right, our pandemic response can be used to fight climate change too

History and the structure of the contemporary global economy might offer plenty of cause for concern about the impact of the pandemic on efforts to fight climate change, but there are also reasons to be hopeful. As Mike Berners Lee of Lancaster University puts it: “COVID-19 is a re-evaluation and re-wiring opportunity”.


What type of change is Bernes Lee talking about? Well, the IEA’s Executive Director makes a strong argument that now is the right time for governments to direct their stimulus packages to green sectors. Renewable resources like wind and solar energy are far cheaper to harness than in previous stimulus-requiring periods of economic turmoil and low oil prices mean harmful fossil fuel consumption subsidies can finally be eradicated. If governments heed arguments such as these, the pandemic may indeed become a turning point for climate change efforts, leading to the sustained CO2 reductions we need.


Coronavirus might not solve climate change, but it proves we can

How else can we use the pandemic as a chance for “re-evaluation and re-wiring” when it comes to climate change? Another answer comes from the green behaviours which lockdown conditions have imposed:

  • Working from home rather than in energy-intensive office buildings
  • Finding ways to spend free time locally as a substitute for holidays abroad
  • Holding meetings, events and conferences over video platforms instead of flying to attend these

If individuals and businesses sustain these habits after the crisis ends, and if they are supported in doing so by strong government green investment, emissions could – potentially – be kept below pre-pandemic levels.


I hope you’ve enjoyed my analysis. What are your thoughts on the connections between the pandemic and climate change?


By Sabine VanderLinden


Photograph from Markus Spiske via Unsplashed